Taking a shotgun approach to a thorny problem


The federal government just does not seem like it knows what it wants to do about the spotted owl.

First, the Bureau of Land Management pulled out of a timber sale in Southern Oregon because it said the sale could not meet new logging restrictions designed to protect the spotted owl.

This did not go over well with timber companies.

“If (Interior Secretary Ken Salazar) is sincere about trying to get timber going again for counties and local businesses down there, they’ve got to take on things with big problems,” said Scott Horngren, an attorney for the American Forest Resource Council, a timber industry group in Portland. “If they are not going to do that, you’re just basically playing games.”

The federal government doesn’t even know what those new logging restrictions are going to be. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is still working on a new spotted owl recovery plan, and the early draft that’s been released is full of problems.

Just last weekend, the Oregonian broke the news that the feds are considering shooting barred owls as part of the new spotted owl recovery plan. As part of the story, the reporter tagged along with timber managers as they shot barred owls with a shotgun, and accompanying the story is a photo of 4 dead barred owls splayed out on a table.

The Oregonian’s story has attracted a lot of comments, and both environmental groups and timber advocates seem to be somewhat surprised that the federal government would take such an unusual step.

In the article, some timber leaders and local officials say the proposal is a sign that the federal government is grasping at straws and doesn’t know what it’s doing.

Down in timber country, Douglas County Commissioner Doug Robertson  calls the proposal to shoot barred owls an example of “dysfunctional” forest policy. Counties like his depend economically on federal timber, which Robertson says is managed to benefit a species that can’t be recovered.

“When nature takes a turn, it’s going to prevail no matter what we try to do,” he says. “I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s nonsense to shoot one species to benefit another. I don’t think the public will accept it.”

The proposal is also another reminder that the barred owl, a larger and more aggressive species, is the primary reason why the spotted owl is still in decline 20 years after being listed as endangered. So why does the federal government still seem intent on taking more forestland away in the new recovery plan to provide for habitat, while at the same time going to such radical means to eliminate the barred owl?

The shootout does interfere with what happens in nature all the time: survival of the fittest.

“Population dynamics between two native species should not be artificially manipulated,” says Blake Murden, wildlife and fisheries director for Port Blakely Tree Farms in Tumwater, Wash. The company is not anti-owl. In 2009 it agreed to manage 45,000 acres as spotted owl habitat in exchange for protection from additional logging restrictions.

Murden says barred owls expanded rapidly because they adapt well to mixed habitat and eat a variety of prey, while spotted owls prefer old-growth to nest and, in most of its range, flying squirrels to eat.

“It’s a generalist and a specialist,” Murden says, “and invariably the generalist will win.”